In an era of erroneous and misleading arguments, the term whataboutism has been creeping up everywhere. The amplification of political rhetoric aimed at averting the truth coupled with lofty purity tests is pushing this phrase into the mainstream lexicon.
What is whataboutism?
Popularized as a Russian propaganda tool, the term is a logical fallacy that attempts to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy while avoiding the substance of their argument. Whataboutism reverses the accusation, attempting to imply that one’s opponent is an equal or larger culprit of the offense In essence a more modern, exhausting, bullshit attempt at the pot calling the kettle black.
The term’s increased pervasiveness can be attributed to a number of reasons, but mainly, the phrase is an effective rhetorical weapon in a world of internet squabbling and sound bites. Online consumption of news provides easy access for propaganda and misinformation (the main function of whataboutism).
Paste, a monthly music and entertainment magazine, believes its rise is in part due to groupthink. The publication argues, “This helps explain the rise in “whataboutism.” It’s stimulating precisely because it’s purely divisive, purely tribal. The evolutionary explanation is that when our beliefs are reinforced, this simultaneously reinforces or strengthens our bonds with others like us.”
One classic example of whataboutism justifying the mistreatment of others due to being treated poorly in the past. Corporations often use whataboutism to dismiss alleged abuses of employees or operational mishaps, by pointing to other organizations making more egregious misconduct. And countries have often deployed whataboutism tactics when it comes to human rights, side-stepping any criticism by pointing out more nefarious cases of human rights abuses by other nations.
While some defend this utilization of conversing as a means to provide context or assess the relevance of a critique, the uptick in whataboutism speak should have you very concerned.
For starters, whataboutism makes us stupid. Whataboutism is the tilapia of conversation. It’s not exactly high level reasoning to redirect the same accusation towards your accuser. It skips an opportunity to shape and clear your thinking. This type of arguing isn’t arguing, it’s worse than talking past each other’s point. Overlooking the substance of an argument diminishes our chance to think and to think clearly. It makes conversation sleazy, cheap, and stupid.
Second, whataboutism weakens the muscles we use to compare and contextualize. Whataboutism fans state this line of reasoning provides a baseline for the topic. They are incorrect. Whataboutism skips evaluating the gravity of an action and weighting two similar events in an astute manner. It attempts to make all evil deeds equally vicious and nefarious. It obscures the motivations of human behavior. For example, yes, Vice President Mike Pence has horrid views on homosexuality and methods to respect women. His beliefs, however, are not on par with ISIS.
Therein lies the third problem with this logical fallacy. Whataboutism creates a culture of indifference. If we are all equally guilty, then there is no room to scold someone. If there is a confluence of pressing issues in the world, there is no way to focus on one single issue. By making morality a moving target, whataboutism pushes us into a space where we feel we can’t make significant progress, that everything we do is partially as harmful or insignificant.
Fourth, whataboutism erodes accountability. If we are all somewhat culpable of an act, then there is no one who takes responsibility. If one acts in an uncouth manner but can point out that their accuser has done so in the past, they are free to go unpunished with zero consequence to their misdeed.
Finally, what worries me most is that whataboutism narrows the window for redemption and empathy. Outside of the Commander-in-Chief’s twitter feed, whataboutism is commonly weaponized for purity tests – singling out people trying to do good who once made mistakes or trying to hold other people accountable. If we continue to bring up someone’s past blunders we lose the ability to forgive. Whataboutism leaves no room for growth and maturity. It has become the main arrow in the quiver of cancel culture warriors. If you were bad once, then you are no longer able to call out bad people who do bad things because you once were a bad person. You are forever irredeemable from your past sins.
I understand why some people want to leave room for this method of debate. Often times people are deflecting and historical perspective can provide sound insight into the issue.
But on the whole, they are wrong. A critique on the critique of whataboutism is whataboutism. It pivots away from the truth that there has been an erosion in civil discourse and sound thinking. The technique is overused and abused. It is deemed a logical fallacy for a reason.
Discourse and debate should be judicious, informed, mature, and sincere. Whataboutism logic is void of all those qualities. It prevents us from honestly sinking our teeth into issues and pushing along the conversation. It creates an endless cycle of false moral equivalencies. And it enables our worst instincts. If we want to improve our discourse with those who disagree with us, we need to drop this horrendous rhetorical tactic. There are no two ways about that.